Calderon, the Courtier (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1850)

In 17th century Spain, Don Rodrigo Calderon is the favorite courtier of the Infant — a profligate of unparalleled proportions. Calderon is attached to the House of Lerma. A young soldier from the same house, Martin Fonseca, appears in the capitol after several years in Portugal. He’s in love with an orphaned singer, Beatriz Coello, who in his absence entered a convent. He asks Calderon’s help in freeing her so that they may marry. Calderon, though hardly known for compassion, agrees. The Infant, however, also has his eye on the girl. Beatriz is whisked away to the arranged hiding place, but Fonseca isn’t there to meet her — he’s been arrested on trumped up charges. Calderon is to hold her until the Infant arrives, but when he sees her, he realizes she’s his long-lost daughter.

Meanwhile, a conspiracy is at play in the court. With the Grand Inquisitor ‘s death, Calderon’s rivals plan to oust the courtier by installing an Inquisitor sympathetic to their cause. Fonseca is freed and rushes to the house, where Calderon has just fought off the Infant and is attempting to escape with Beatriz, but Fonseca — having been filled with the most damning reports of Calderon — thinks something quite different is happening and pulls his sword on the courtier. Beatriz jumps in front of her father and Fonseca accidentally kills her. Calderon is arrested by the Inquisitor and is tortured and put to death.

Inscriptions: a plate on the inside front cover says it was donated by John Manch to the Manch College of Music, November 23rd, 1926.

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The Last Days of Pompeii (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1834)

In ancient Pompeii, Glaucus, a young Athenian man, falls in love with Ione, a Greek woman. However, her guardian, the Egyptian astrologer Arbaces, has long intended to claim her for his own wife. When her brother Apaecides, formerly a priest of Isis, converts to the new religion of the Nazarenes and threatens to reveal the Egyptian mysteries, Arbaces sees his chance. He kills Apaecides and frames Glaucus for the murder, seeing him sentenced to death by lion in the arena.

Nydia, a blind slave, is also in love with Glaucus. As she has knowledge of Arbaces’s crime, he’s imprisoned her in his mansion. By the time she’s freed, Glaucus has already been served to the lion, but strangely, the starved beast makes no move to attack him. The superstitious crowd takes this as proof of Glaucus’s innocence and turns on Arbaces when he is accused. He would be thrown to the lion himself, but just then, Vesuvius, the long-dormant volcano, erupts.

The city collapses into chaos. The ash vomited into the sky completely blots out the sun and the people struggle in the dark to reach the sea. Glaucus and Ione are lost in the confusing maze of streets, but Nydia, who knows the city not by sight but by feel, leads them to safety. They board a ship and escape the volcano, but Nydia, realizing now that she’s lost Glaucus to Ione forever, leaps into the water and drowns herself.

Inscription: “Alice M. Bartlett, Nov. 1897, from Mr.+Mrs. Ross”, on the front flyleaf.

The Caxtons: A Family Picture (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1849)

The Caxtons are an ancient family. Austin, ever the bookworm, prefers to trace the lineage to William Caxton, an obscure 15th century printer. Roland, his more martial and romantically inclined brother, favors the somewhat apocryphal 12th century warrior Sir Adam de Caxton. Regardless, the Caxtons of the present day are not a very prominent or important bunch. In their youth, both Austin and Roland fell in love with the same woman, Ellinor Compton. But Ellinor, already an heiress to enormous wealth, also had ambition. She rather did love Austin, but it was plain that he was too content with his books and hadn’t the drive to attain any great station. She played something of a coquette to Roland, but never seriously considered him. The military offers few avenues for the sort of advancement she desired, and Roland, with his head filled with chivalrous romances like a modern-day Quixote, lived in a fairy tale and scarce saw the real world at all. Instead, she married Trevanion, a man with great promise, sure to make a name for himself in the political sphere.

After their disappointment, the Caxton brothers both accidentally fall into marriages of their own. When Austin’s tutor died, his daughter Kitty somehow became Austin’s ward, and later, somehow became his wife. He’s not exactly sure of the details. Roland, on a campaign in Spain, came in contact with a Spanish widow whose fortune had been ruined by the war. Roland’s “knightly compassion” compelled him to marry her.

Austin and Kitty have a son, Pisistratus. Austin delights in the boy’s education, but would not have him be the perpetual scholar he is. Though little acquainted with it himself, he’s aware that there’s a world outside the library and that Sisty must know it. On the whole, their little family is happy. On the other hand, Roland and Ramouna are plagued with strife. Roland’s romantic notions of honor don’t gel with Ramouna’s fiery, lawless ways. She impresses her low opinion of the English on their first born, Herbert, and quite effectively estranges him from his father. She dies shortly after the birth of their second child, Blanche, who Roland takes back to England.

Kitty’s brother Jack is an idea man. He has no end of money-making schemes, but unfortunately, they don’t seem to ever make him money, and even worse, they usually cost his investors dearly. All of Jack’s attempts to lure in Austin fail until he strikes upon publishing. With the promise that his magnum opus, The History of Human Error, will see release, Austin agrees to fund Jack’s latest scheme. After paying off all their debtors and bailing Jack out of jail, Austin’s already meager income is severely impaired and Austin is forced to move-in with Roland.

But during the time of Jack’s folly, Pisistratus had been in London and made the acquaintance of a number of personages. The first is Trevanion, who has indeed made his way in Parliament, and his wife Ellinor (it must be said here that Sisty is yet unaware of this particular bit of family history). He also meets their daughter Fanny and is smitten by her. And then he chances upon Francis Vivian. Vivian is quite loquacious on some topics, but on others — particularly those regarding his relations — he remains cagey. He’s a dissolute young man who lives by gambling and is at the moment without funds. Pisistratus has by now become Trevanion’s secretary, and as Vivian speaks English and Spanish indifferently, he secures his friend’s employment in the capacity of a translator.

Sisty finds that he’s grown to love Fanny, which simply won’t do. Ellinor’s ambition has by no means been sated and Fanny’s marriage will be arranged for advancement, not for love. And so Sisty quits Trevanion. This clears the way for Vivian, who’s less scrupulous in such matters. He abducts her and plans to force a Scottish marriage, but is thwarted by the combined efforts of Pisistratus (who still hasn’t quite figured out who Vivian really is), Roland (who most definitely has), and the Marquis of Castleton (who I haven’t mentioned at all, which is a shame since his subplot is delightful, but this synopsis is already much too long). Vivian, or Herbert if you like, is at last made aware of how flawed his impression of his father is and understands (somewhat) that (perhaps) his actions were (slightly) ignoble.

Sisty, hoping to restore the family fortune (since ruined by Jack), prepares to leave for Australia to work a sheep station, and Vivian accompanies him (to the relief of his father, who fears he’d backslide if he stayed another day in England). They both meet with great success. Sisty more than repays his father’s debts and Vivian feels redeemed enough to resume his former name. But the Australian bush is not for Herbert. Following his father’s footsteps, he joins the army and leaves to fight in India. He serves bravely — perhaps overly so. The Captain is killed on the field. But there’s always a silver lining: Roland was proud of his prodigal son, surely, but he did complicate matters, as Roland had already made Sisty his heir and scion of the imaginary House de Caxton. Herbert clouded the succession.

In the end, Sisty marries Blanche, they have two daughters and a little Herbert, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Inscription: from the same set donated by John Manch to the Manch College of Music in 1926 that nearly all my Bulwer-Lytton books are from.

Leila; or, the Siege of Granada (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1838)

In Moorish Granada, Almamen is King Boabdil’s trusted adviser, but unknown to Boabdil, Almamen is a Jew. He is secretly plotting to deliver the city to King Ferdinand, who has promised equality to the Jews of Spain. Ferdinand takes Almamen’s daughter Leila hostage as guarantee of Almamen’s end of the bargain, but it quickly becomes apparent that the Christians will treat the Jews no better than the Muslims had and that Ferdinand has already reneged on the agreement. Almamen switches sides back to the Moors, through whom he hopes to recover his daughter, but Boabdil is fated to lose against Ferdinand. Leila, in captivity, has converted to Christianity. When Almamen at last discovers her and learns of her conversion, he kills her. Hated by the Christians, the Muslims, and his fellow Jews who blame him for the worsening of their already poor condition in Spain, he’s literally torn apart.

Inscription: a plate on the inside front cover says that the book was donated by John Manch to the Manch College of Music on November 23rd, 1926. Manch donated a complete set of Bulwer-Lytton, which is still intact and which I now own.

The Coming Race (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1871)

A man descends a deep mineshaft and finds himself in a subterranean world populated by an advanced human-like species known as Vril-ya, so-called because of their command of the almost magical power vril, which they harness to create all manner of scientific wonders. The man spends some time (months? years? quite hard to tell in a land with no day or season) among the Vril-ya, and primarily concerns himself with observing their society.

It is on its surface a utopia — without war, without class, without hunger, without disease. The people live in quiet ease, all labor having devolved to automata or made trivial by the use of vril. However, on reflection, it’s culturally stagnant and is governed by a brutal dictatorship masked only by the bland complacency of the inhabitants, at peace with its neighbors only by the mutually assured destruction of a vril war. The man fears the annihilation this “coming race” would spell for his own people if and when they reach the surface world. On the other side, the Vril-ya are deeply concerned with the dangers this Tish (literally tadpole, but meaning barbarian) poses to the Ana (people) should his Pah-bodh (false) ideology spread, risking their decline into¬† Koom-Posh (…hard to translate concisely, let’s say degeneration) or even Glek-Nas (utter corruption).

Incidentally, a great deal of time is spent expounding on the Vril-ya language. The vocabulary presented is no more than a dozen or two words, but Bulwer-Lytton does set forth a thought-out grammar, seemly quite influenced by Sanskrit and Welsh.

The daughter of his host, Zee, falls in love with the man, which is most perilous for him. Such a match between a Gy (female Vril-ya) and a Tish is proscribed and the Tish will be executed to prevent it. And it does come to that. The Tur (leader) issues the man’s death warrant, but Zee, rather than see her beloved killed, returns him to the cavern he entered by and he escapes back to the surface world.

The book was a touch disappointing, if only because I went in with such high hopes. Zanoni and A Strange Story are masterpieces of esoteric fiction, and as I knew Bulwer-Lytton had a personal interest in the Hollow Earth theory, I expected so much from a story that explores it. Unfortunately, he’s a bit too caught up in the concept of inner-earth people and on speculating on what they might be like, and as a consequence, he never gets around to much in the way of plot or character development.

No inscriptions.

What Will He Do With It? (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1858)

As I was reaching the end of this book, I began to get worried. How was I going to summarize this? What will I do with it?* It’s easy to boil down an action-based plot, but in terms of pure action, almost nothing happens here. Near all of the novel is devoted to character study and to a rumination on the concept of pride. Further complicating summary, what does happen, happens non-linearly. And further still, when I say “book”, what I mean to say is twelve books — What Will He Do With It? is a very long work.

In the barest outline, Guy Darrell wants to restore his family’s fallen name. His only heir, a distant cousin named Lionel Haughton, is in love with Sophy Waife, the granddaughter of a mysterious traveling performer. It comes out that her grandfather is the convicted felon William Losely and that Sophy may be the child of Darrell’s estranged daughter Matilda — both damning in Darrell’s eye. Darrell struggles to overcome his pride for the sake for Lionel’s happiness.

Those few lines don’t scratch the surface of What Will He Do With It?, but it was either write that, or write page after page on the book’s several dozen characters and how they intersect.

* Yes, Bulwer-Lytton does that many, many, many times throughout the narrative, small caps and all

Kenelm Chillingly (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1873)

Kenelm Chillingly is born the only son and heir of Sir Peter Chillingly. From birth, Kenelm was quiet, unemotional, aloof, and in general an odd duck. A tutor, Welby, is chosen to educated him in the “new ideas” of the current generation. As he grows, he proves to be given to study, but is thoroughly without ambition and thinks very little of the ambitions others hold — namely, marriage, career, and position. Later, at Oxford, his disdain for women is reinforced by Decimus Roach, a scholar devoted not only to the celibacy of the clergy, but the celibacy of everyone else.

Back at home, aimless as ever, Kenelm meets a man and his dog traveling the country-side and singing songs for spare change. The man is a bit too well-spoken to be a common beggar, but Kenelm doesn’t press the question, or even ask his name. From the verse-maker, he decides that he, too, should drop out of society and wander about on foot to find himself. They meet a few more times on the road, the verse-maker vainly trying to make Kenelm see the value of love, and Kenelm vainly trying to reason the verse-maker out of it.

Skipping forward a bit, his travels eventually lead him to a small village where a farmer girl loves a crippled basket maker, but cannot marry him for lack of money and fear of Tom Bowles. Bowles is a brutish farrier, infamous for his strength and temper, who has claimed the girl as his own. Kenelm, though slight of figure, is a skilled fighter himself and decides to call Bowles out. Defeated, Bowles promises to leave town, but Kenelm won’t let him go until the two make friends. Kenelm sets up Will (the basket maker) in a shop in the village and he and Jessie (the farmer girl) marry.

The village preacher is rather impressed by Kenelm and introduces him to the local squire, Leopold Travers, and his daughter, Cecilia. Cecilia falls in love with Kenelm almost at once. Kenelm rather likes her, but doesn’t imagine he could love anyone, and certainly not Cecilia. Their estate borders the ruins of an old castle. Kenelm learns that its owners, the Fletwodes, were terribly disgraced some years ago — embezzlement, arrest, suicide — and were now lost somewhere in obscurity.

Skipping forward quite a bit. Events have transpired, Bowles has reformed and come into some fortune, Will’s business has failed, Bowles anonymously buys him a new store in a more upscale town where his basketry will be in greater demand, Will and Jessie assume their benefactor is Kenelm.

Kenelm goes to see them and meets Lily. Lily is an orphan who lives modestly with her aunt, but her parents were evidently aristocrats. Her absent legal guardian is an artist — a man she calls Lion — who has only recently come into fashion and wealth. Kenelm soon realizes that his old notions of celibacy were all wrong and decides to ask Lily to marry him. Her aunt, Mrs. Cameron, is opposed to this, but won’t say why and remains rather cryptic about Lily’s origins or condition. It comes out that Mrs. Cameron is actually a Fletwode and has vowed to keep Lily ignorant of the family’s past and shield her from disgrace. Further, Lion — or Walter Melville — is the wandering verse-maker. Other than her aunt, he is the only one who knows who Lily is and, for his service to the family, has been promised her hand in marriage. Kenelm is dejected and flees to Italy. There, he meets Bowles once more and is reminded of how he got over his love for Jessie after he saw her happily married to Will. Kenelm returns to see the new Mrs.¬†Melville, but finds that Lily died shortly after his departure. She left him a note, saying that she loved him and couldn’t bear to marry anyone else.

The ending was rushed — amazingly so, given Bulwer-Lytton’s usual pace and penchant for lingering on details. There was story enough to have easily gone on for another 800 pages. Kenelm Chillingly was published in 1873, the same year that the author died. The last few chapters, particularly, do not read like Bulwer-Lytton and I’m convinced they were written by someone else, but much of the last quarter of the book seems like a hastily finished sketch.